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San Diego Holiday Survival Guide

Consider at least five of your holiday anxieties solved, from navigating the mall to entertaining relatives and finding ways to celebrate the season


Illustrations by Libby Burns

The Problem

“I need help getting into the holiday spirit.”


The Fix

Twinkle lights. Eggnog. A fire in the hearth... Still nothing? If you’re not getting the feels for every joyous thing that December brings, the easiest way to get in the spirit is to focus on the present moment—and a great way to do that is to sing, because your mind can’t linger elsewhere while you’re trying to stay in tune, especially if you’re in a group.

There’s a free Messiah Sing- and Play-Along (Dec. 1 and 6) with the Greater San Diego Chamber Orchestra and Chorus at Poway’s St. Bart’s Episcopal Church. Bring your own score or rent one for $5. Copley Symphony Hall will be decked with boughs of holly for the holiday concert Noel Noel (Dec. 14, 15, 20–22,), an audience sing-along with the San Diego Master Chorale; the matinee on Dec. 15 is especially for families and includes an appearance by Santa.

To relax and just let the performers do the singing, there’s Sacra/Profana’s holiday concert (Dec. 13 in Hillcrest and 15 in San Marcos), St. James Music Series’ Emmet Cahill: Christmas in Ireland (Dec. 6, St. James by-the-Sea in La Jolla), and Bach Collegium San Diego presenting Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 20–22, various locations).

Looking for something more secular? You can get cozy for Elf, A Christmas Story, The Holiday, Love Actually, and It’s a Wonderful Life during Rooftop Cinema Club at the Manchester Grand Hyatt (through Dec. 22; blankets are complimentary). Now, if music and movies don’t inspire you, doing something for others will get you smiling. Volunteer at Del Mar Fairgrounds December 5–15 making holiday baskets with Community Resource Center, or make cookies and arts and crafts with kids at Autism Tree Project Foundation’s 11th Annual Winter Wonderland (University of San Diego, Dec. 7). There’s nothing like a child’s excitement to break any feelings of “bah humbug.”

Finally, if what you really need to get into the holiday spirit is cold air and snow on the ground, then try Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Go in the morning, otherwise you’ll hit traffic getting off the 8—and if that traffic does start to sap your mood, just turn to KyXy 96.5 and start singing. Erin Meanley Glenny

Goodbye Grinch, hello spirit(s)!

While Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is 22 seasons strong this year, The Old Globe is also starting a new tradition: Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG San Diego Christmas Show. The modern take on Dickens is set in San Diego!


The Problem

“I have to entertain out-of-towners.”


The Fix

Instead of just taking friends and relatives to Balboa Park and calling it a day, be a better tour guide and plan some outings that will keep everyone merry—whether it’s your in-laws, nieces and nephews, or college friends you haven’t seen in a while—and that you’ll enjoy, too.

You know your relatives will want to go to the San Diego Zoo if they’ve never visited before, and starting from mid-December through the beginning of January, the park gets into the holiday spirit with twinkling lights, decorations, and The Polar Express shown in 4-D. Pro tip: The zoo is open on Christmas Day, and since the usual crowds will be gone, you’ll feel like you have the park to yourself.

Take a break from having to worry about traffic or finding parking in Coronado by bringing everyone aboard the Coronado Ferry, then hailing an Uber or Lyft to the Hotel Del to check out the holiday decorations or the famous ice-skating rink by the sea. Before taking the ferry back, stop at Centennial Park to get that photo of the San Diego skyline.

The Old Town Trolley’s Holiday Lights Tour has another option if you don’t feel like getting behind the wheel. Almost every night in December, it has tours that leave Old Town (with five or six different departure times) and take you to see the light displays in the Embarcadero and Seaport Village.

If all else fails and you and your siblings are in serious need of an escape from the family (and a strong drink), gather at Polite Provisions’ holiday-themed pop-up bar, “Miracle on 30th Street,” for seasonal cocktails and floor-to-ceiling decor that is guaranteed to put you in a better mood. Marie Tutko

Show your landlocked relatives the Pacific, but stay out of the fray.

Fathom Bistro, Bait & Tackle is an underrated spot on the bay at Shelter Island that has housemade sausages and almost two dozen beers on tap. What holiday madness?


The Problem

“The airport is a nightmare.”


The Fix

If you can swing it, fly early in the month and return later. This year, the Thursday to Saturday before Christmas (Dec. 19–21) are projected to be San Diego International’s busiest travel days, and the three days after Christmas the second busiest. According to Communications Manager Rebecca Gilbert, they expect 65,000 passengers to pass through every day during this peak season!

If you must fly then, avoid an early morning departure (5:30–7:30 a.m.) in favor of one around 2–4 p.m., when the airport will be slowest. Arrive at least two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international one. Driving yourself? SAN offers advance parking reservations (visit upgradeyourparking.com) at a discount for its valet service, parking plaza, and long-term lot—reservation or no, the latter is often the most overlooked and least expensive, while the Terminal 1 lot fills up quickest.

Once inside, be prepped and ready to go through security with the TSA’s top holiday travel tips: Don’t wrap your gifts, because they could be subject to screening; keep fragile things such as ornaments in your carry-on; know you can bring solid leftovers on the plane; and bear in mind that snow globes are often over that 3.4-ounce limit for liquids (if the globe is smaller than a tennis ball, you should be clear).

Once through security, SAN has plenty of holiday programming to make the rest of your travel easy, including Ready, Pet, Go, a volunteer-led program where therapy dogs roam with a handler through the terminals, visiting people to ease their stress; plus holiday carolers and performers on December 21; the AtYourGate app to order food directly to your gate; and Baggage Nanny, a new luggage pickup and delivery service. Safe travels! Sarah Pfledderer

Breathe in before you fly out.

If you’re taking off from SAN’s Terminal 2, find a moment to sit in the meditation room by Sunset Cove (the fancy name for the food court), past security.


The Problem

“I spent all of my money on presents.”


The Fix

It’s hard to truly understand the meaning of Christmas when there’s a $20 cover charge attached to it. Family togetherness, generosity, and goodwill toward your fellow human beings are all well and good, but it’s cold comfort when the cost of participating in holiday activities puts you in the red. The problem is easier to get around when you live somewhere with actual snow. Snowball fights, building snowmen, making snow angels? Instant spirit, zero dollars. Genuine snowfall or not, however, San Diego’s options for easy-on-the-wallet holidays are plentiful.

No holiday celebration here offers a bigger return on investment than the free, two-day Balboa Park December Nights (Dec. 6–7). Live performances, holiday lights, free museum admission and, for a little cash, holiday refreshments—just make sure to plan ahead for parking, boarding the free shuttle, or mapping out your walking route. If you haven’t already been overwhelmed by cheer on December 7, make the trek over to Piazza Basilone that night for the Little Italy Tree Lighting & Christmas Village, with horsedrawn carriage rides and an appearance from Santa. The South Park Walkabout takes place the same night, with its own tree lighting at Grape and Fern streets, live music, cider, cookies, and even a little shopping.

On December 8 or 15, stake out a spot along the water to watch the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, featuring around 80 brightly decorated boats. Likewise, make a point to cross the Coronado Bridge to get a glimpse of the Hotel Del’s Christmas tree, an annual tradition now celebrating its 115th year (The Del boasts that it displayed the world’s first living, outdoor, electrically lit Christmas tree).

Or if you prefer to enjoy more under-the-radar attractions, take a drive to see some neighborhood holiday light displays in Clairemont (Lana Drive and Jamar Drive), Scripps Ranch (Stonebridge Parkway and Merritage Court), and Chula Vista (Whitney Street and Mankato Street). Visions of sugarplums, chestnuts roasting on open fires, and partridges in pear trees need not break the bank. But maybe set aside a few dollars for cocoa and sugar cookies. Jeff Terich

Don’t pay to park at the Parade of Lights.

Parking’s free on Harbor and Shelter islands—but why drive? Take the green line trolley to Santa Fe Depot and walk to the waterfront.


The Problem

“I can’t stand the mall.”


The Fix

You’ve made your list, checked it twice, and then you’ve got to decide whether you want to deal with mall shoppers, naughty or nice. To avoid the biggest crowds, don’t shop the week of Christmas or the week before. That’s when the mayhem is maximal, according to insiders at Westfield North County, UTC, and Fashion Valley. But if you procrastinate and must shop last-minute, go right when the centers open or just before closing, and take advantage of their gift wrapping services. Macy’s, Nordstrom, Pottery Barn, Gorjana, Origins, Lush, and Geppetto’s all offer free gift wrapping with a purchase.

At Fashion Valley you can find donation-based gift-wrapping stations near their Santa house, and San Pasqual High School Music Boosters will be wrapping at Westfield North County December 13-24. UTC and Fashion Valley also have complimentary package checks so you don’t have to lug them around as your kids are pulling on your arm to visit St. Nick.

All season long, parking is bound to be your biggest bane—but you can avoid it if you’re willing to spend a few bucks. Fashion Valley has some “UpFront Parking” spots set aside for $4 on weekdays and $5 on weekends that’ll get you closer to the entrances, and there’s also valet services for $10–$20 per day. Westfield UTC offers valet for just $8 for four hours. Westfield North County has valet, too, and preferred up-front parking for families. SP

For seriously last-minute purchases, use curbside pickup.

Nordstrom offers it year-round and 24/7 during the holidays, and Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Macy’s all have the option to buy online and pick up in store.

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